It's still 2011, but the 2012 election has been going on a long time. Nate Silver's "fivethirtyeight" blog hasn't yet made an attempt to count the "538" electoral votes, but that, and not the national polls, is how the points will be scored. The national disapproval rating for Obama or the GOP, or the national head-to-head matchups of Obama vs. some particular Republican, don't really matter if they are averaging an intense rejection of Obama in the Ozark-Appalachian belt with an unenthused but positive margin for him in most of the rest of the country. How does the state-by-state game look now? I have adjusted the numbers to the 2010-census reapportionments, and "colored" my map based on the past three cycles. Here are my seven colors:
NAVY BLUE, 17 states, 2 districts for Gore and Kerry, and for Obama by mostly double-digits. Pacific: California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii. Upper Lakes: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan. Mid-Atlantic: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, DC. New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Portland Maine. Assume that even if the GOP narrowly picks off Bangor Maine, the greater margin in Portland will give the state bonus to the Dems, and this is 241 electoral votes.
BABY BLUE, 3 states, 1 district for Gore or Kerry, Obama by single-digits. New Mexico, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Bangor Maine for 16 votes.
PURPLE, 2 states disputed by Gore or Kerry, narrowly for Obama but sure to be hot again this time. Florida and Ohio for 47.
INDIGO, 3 states, 1 district for Bush twice but flipped by Obama. Virginia, Omaha Nebraska, Colorado, Nevada for 29.
GRAY, 3 states within 1% of a tie last time, enough 3rd-party that no-one had a majority. North Carolina (barely Obama), Indiana (very barely Obama), and Missouri (very very barely McCain) for 36.
PINK, 3 states for McCain under special circumstances. Montana (McCain by plurality only, due to Ron Paul votes; Obama a few percent back, but led the polls at one point), Arizona (McCain's home, but Hispanic anger on the immigration issue puts this in play this time), and Alaska (Palin's home, but "Palin fatigue" has injured the GOP brand) for 17.
CRIMSON, 17 states, 2 districts that are deeply Red. Deep South: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina. Upper South: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia. Mormon West: Utah, Idaho, Wyoming. Great Plains: North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Lincoln and Rural Nebraska, for 152.
Now, it's not impossible for the GOP to invade Navy territory: McCain's late efforts for Pennsylvania only got the margin just below double digits (about 9.9% IIRC) but were not out of the question (there is a lot of "north Appalachia" in the state that gave us Senator Santorum, although Santorum is disdained enough in Philly and Pittsburgh that he would be of negative use there as either candidate or running mate); the Upper Lakes, aside from Obama's unassailable home-base of Illinois, were only single-digit margins and offer possibilities. Minnesota gave us Michelle Bachmann as well as Al Franken; Wisconsin is home to governor Walker's voters as well as those trying to recall him (very polarized and delicately balanced right now); and while Michigan (home of the original "Reagan Democrats" of Macomb County) has some gratitude to Obama for rescuing GM and Chrysler, it also fondly recalls Romney's father as one of the last competent governors. Nor is it impossible for the Dems to invade Crimson: holding the convention in Charlotte is not just a bid to retain North Carolina, but also reflects a "New South" strategy that aims to flip states like Georgia. Gingrich as nominee might retain enough hometown sentiment to take Georgia off the table, but one poll showed him trailing Obama in South Carolina, of all places: a solid black vote for Obama would need to be countered by more of a solid white vote than Gingrich is accomplishing.
But, we can take 241-152 as roughly the "starting score", more or less in the sense that the 1967 boundaries are a starting point for an Israeli-Palestinian solution: yes yes, of course we know there can be adjustments in either direction, but it is the ballpark. And it is very unfavorable ballpark for the GOP: they would need 118 out of the 145 votes available in the states of intermediate "color"; while Obama would need only 29, and let us subdivide Obama's possibilities by how the Purples go:
A. Obama takes Florida: that's 270, game over.
B. Ohio but not Florida: then any one of North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, or Colorado, or any two out of Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, New Hampshire, or Montana+Alaska makes at least 268; Obama would only need Bangor or Omaha if the "one" was Missouri or the "two" included New Hampshire, or both if the "one" was Colorado or the "two" was NH+NM.
C. No Purples: then holding all the Indigos makes 270; or some Baby Blues (easier for Obama) could substitute, Iowa for Nevada (both 6), or Bangor for Omaha (1), or NH+NM for Colorado; if he failed to hold Virginia, holding North Carolina (the most realistic Gray) or picking off Arizona and another Pink would be required.
This is a lot of options. The Republican candidate would need stop all of them. This puts them in a dilemma:
Play D? If the idea of picking off any Navy states is abandoned (and, let's face it, any candidate who drinks too much "Tea" is going to have a very hard time doing that), then Florida is an absolute must. The Ryan budget proposing to kill Medicare as we know it seriously damaged the GOP with the long-memory retired voters (attempts to say that Ryan's "coupon" program could still be called "Medicare" of a sort have not sold well). That is why Gingrich (who may be crazy but is definitely not stupid) has broken the commandment "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican" to blast Ryan; and why he tried to out-Likud Netanyahu with his "invented Palestinians" remark, playing to older Jews in Florida; and why he will need to rally the Cubans (who are harder to rile up now that Castro is fading), perhaps with Rubio (despite the baggage) or Jeb Bush (despite the poisonous name) for a running-mate. But it's not enough: it is also necessary to nail down Ohio, or be forced to "run the table" on the rest of the swing states. God-gays-guns themes have played well in Ohio, and we may hear more of that, but in an economy-dominated year, the juice may have been nearly squeezed out of that orange; so we will see more efforts to tank the economy and push the blame for it onto Obama. But both Purples are not enough either: the GOP must also retake North Carolina and Virginia, or at least one of them and almost all of the Rocky Mountains. The divisive strategies required to nail down Florida and Ohio are not going to be helpful against an "Indigo" strategy for Obama in the New South and Southwest: pitting "NoVa" against "Real Virginia" as Palin tried last time would be counter-productive again; the interests of the Cuban Floridians are not the same as those of Hispanics from Mexico or Central America in the Southwest, who may have been irretrievably alienated already. There seem to be a few too many plates to juggle here, when not a single one can be dropped.
So, go on O instead? The GOP establishment would prefer something like a Romney/Christie ticket, making plays for Michigan, New Jersey, and Massachusetts (though Massachusetts probably knows Romney too well), and putting the Dems on defense in Minnesota (though Pawlenty's endorsement is probably a net minus there), Wisconsin (a plausible pick-off), and Pennsylvania (but it is hard to rouse rural Pennsylvania with "moderate" candidates, as McCain found). They could make a good game out of it, if 30-ish Navy votes (say, Michigan and Wisconsin with a close race in New Jersey) were flipped. Then Obama would not have a choice of A, B, or C above, but would have to accomplish two of them: still doable, with Florida and the Indigoes, or both Purples and "one" or "two" more, but more uphill. The problem is that the Republican base will not play this game: if Romney can still be nominated and get the party faithful to campaign for him, it will only be in conjunction with a Michelle Bachman or someone equally Palinesque as a running mate. At best, this will make Navy pick-offs less likely and offsetting losses elsewhere more likely. Or the GOP could end up with the "worst of both worlds" where a running-mate choice scares off independents but fails to appease the Tea Partiers, who defect to a third candidate or just stay home. It is not enough for Romney to be more charming than McCain, when he is also more wobbly: he needs more than a minor improvement on the 2008 results.
The Iowa caucuses are supposed to be the "opening pitch" of the game, but the unusual amount of early action has already contributed to a "bottom of the ninth" feel. The Republicans are a few runs behind: can they catch up? Of course it's possible, but in my opinion it is later than they seem to think.